Is it time for the old Mainline churches to shed that label?

BOBBY ASKS:

Who are the “Mainline” Protestants today?

DOUGLAS LIKEWISE ASKS:

(Paraphrasing) What do we make of proposals for “Mainline” Protestants to drop that label for themselves? And where does that leave me, an “evangelical” who remains in the Episcopal Church “as a grain of sand in the oyster”?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

The dictionary definition of “mainline” signals mainstream prestige, so “Mainline” Protestantism’s decline over recent decades could mean this designation has long since outlived its usefulness. In his email, Douglas considers it “adjectival mayhem.”

The discussion has been renewed by the Christian Century magazine, often considered the bible of the Mainline or at least of the Mainline Left, such that Elesha Coffman’s new history is titled “The Christian Century and the Rise of Mainline Protestantism” (from the excellent Oxford University Press). The book provoked a piece for the “Century” by Carol Howard Merritt urging fellow “progressives” to rebrand: “It’s time to discard that tired label that ties us too closely with a particular race and class. It’s time to call forth another name.” Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary agreed via the First Things journal that the Mainline was “unfortunately named” and “liberal” or “ecumenical” would be “slightly better” adjectives.

Some context: The inexorable shrinkage among Mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s — and simultaneous growth among non-Mainliners, though lately plateauing in some cases — is a sweeping trend that has reshaped American religion. It ranks in significance with the large influx of immigrant Asians and Hispanics. The origins of the commonly used Mainline label are obscure (anyone have information on that?). But it certainly raises thoughts of suburban Philadelphia and “Establishment” standing.

The Guy’s definition: The predominantly white, long-existing, and relatively affluent U.S. Protestant denominations with pluralistic theology, which are easily categorized by ecumenical affiliations with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches (alongside major African-American and Orthodox denominations).

We’re talking about (in order of size) the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches, United Church of Christ, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and several smaller bodies often called the “Seven Sisters.” Together they remain an important bloc with 20 million adherents, but that compares with 30 million at the end of the 1960s, an unprecedented slump as memberships both declined and aged.

Meanwhile, these groups generally floated leftward, in doctrine, politics and culture.

At some point the Protestant majority shifted outside the Mainline to a loose collection consisting of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, Charismatics, churches bound by traditional creeds, countless independent congregations, and minor schisms off the Mainline. Informal worship, bands with ear-splitting amplifiers, clever programming and marketing may explain some success more than theology. But there’s little doubt that leaders confident in their conservative beliefs about Jesus Christ and the Bible have been all-important. Think of it as the Billy Graham Era (though the Southern Baptist evangelist, who turns 95 on Nov. 7, welcomed hosts of Mainline supporters to his crusades).

Dorrien thinks Coffman’s history supports the “cultural victory” thesis, “that liberal Protestantism succeeded by insinuating its values into American culture.” Win the cultural war for gauzy tolerance and sophistication. Lose the religious battle. That’s cold comfort for pastors and lay leaders trying to preserve their local congregations.

Cathy Lynn Grossman of Religion News Service suggests replacement labels, some of them tongue-in-cheek: “Old Line,” “Liberal Church,” “Grandma’s Church,” “Christians-Formerly-Known-As-Mainline,” “New Coke,” “Vintage Protestants,” “VPCC: Vanishing Progressive Christian Church,” “Legacy Church” or else let’s “forget labels” altogether.

Asked to pick their favorite, 24 percent of RNS readers said “Liberal Church.”

Problem is, that’s an L-word many Mainline strategists prefer to shun, even when it applies. More important, scads of Mainliners are conservatives like Douglas. Pew Research Center surveys show “traditionalists” in belief are one-fourth of today’s Mainline members. Despite ongoing conservative walkouts, Mainline Evangelicals akin to Douglas cherish their church heritage though oftentimes — yes — treated as the irritating “grain of sand in the oyster” rather than appreciated as a useful source of spiritual energy, not to mention offering-plate money.

Would The Guy drop the old label now that the Mainline is on the sidelines? Probably not. It has long been in use, there’s no good agreed alternative, and it accurately depicts historic cultural positioning (for instance, scan the affiliations of the Protestants in Congress). But admittedly the label is off key in terms of 21st Century U.S. church dynamics. Oh, and despite its huge membership Catholicism isn’t the American mainline, either.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Questions for Richard Ostling? Leave them in the comments pages.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • LogicGuru

    What’s happened is that the upper middle class is dropping out of religion so you get the lower classes, hence their style of religiosity: evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist. Why should we cede religion to the lower classes?

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      “Why should we cede religion to the lower classes?”

      Dear Sir or Madam: How de haut en bas of you! Is this the value system of a proud Mainline Liberal rational thinker and promulgator of the Fellowship of All Humanity, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identification, race, colour, ethnicity, marital status, belief, or state of (dis)ability? Can you truly be so dismissive of the expressions of the immanent Godself as mediated through the understandings of members of diverse social strata? :-)

      • LogicGuru

        Look: here is extensive data about the demographics of religious belief/affiliation: http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

        The religious groups that have on the average the highest income and educational attainment: Jews, Episcopalians and other mainline Protestants are declining. Evangelicals, who are holding their own, are poorer and less educated. If they are less inclined to participate in church it’s because the lower classes are less inclined to participate in any public or semi-public programs–from youth soccer to PTA.

        I am not dismissing the religion of the lower classes. They see it through the lens of their culture. But I can’t see it through the lens of their culture. And I suspect that most of us who read this blog can’t either. Moreover, their “values” are perfectly awful: sex roles, social conservatism, the whole lot. Nothing is gained by pretending otherwise.

        Their style of religiosity–their music, (lack of) art, rituals, etc. are just not appealing to educated people, and their “values”–their social conservatism–are completely repugnant. It’s a pity that their version of Christianity–Evangelicalism–has become so dominant that most Americans don’t realize that there are other alternatives. But they don’t. Most think that Christianity is a combination of stupidity, bad taste and social conservatism, unsuitable for educated people, because that is what the evangelical Christianity of the lower classes is all about. I’d just like to see some other options.

        Shall we be honest for once? These people are perfectly awful. If everyone without a BA or better were disenfranchised, or sent off to live somewhere else, we would be living in a happy, liberal, socialist paradise. So please, let’s be honest.

    • Golovolomka

      Not according to a 2011 study, which shows that church attendance is higher among the better educated. Here’s a link to a news article that discusses it:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/21/church-attendance-falling_n_930036.html

      “While overall church attendance has declined slightly in the United States in recent decades, a new study says attendance at religious services among white Americans who did not go to college has fallen more than twice as quickly as it has among more highly educated whites.”

  • helen

    Lutherans were not historically considered “Mainline”, being too close to Roman Catholics, too close to peasantry, and too close to their foreign language roots.

    elca gets in by abandoning everything Lutheran, and chasing after “pulpit and altar fellowship” with these others, which voids their “lutheran confession”.

    The more conservative Lutherans still need not apply.

  • Julia B

    I still don’t get “The Guy”. Is this a reference to November 5th or not?

  • mattwardman

    “Together they remain an important bloc with 20 million adherents, but that compares with 30 million at the end of the 1960s, an unprecedented slump as memberships both declined and aged.”

    30 million from 200 million to 20 million from 300 million.

    A halving of population share, if we accept “adherents” as a measure.